The Temple of Repaid Gratitude1 is located upon the banks of the Qinhuai River, in the ancient capital Nanjing, is China’s second temple after the White Horse Temple2 in Luoyang, and is also the first temple in the southern region of China. Its history can be traced back to the third century A.D., when the Eastern Wu3 country within the Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms built the first temple. In the Chiwu era of the Eastern Wu country, during 247 A.D., the emperor Sun Quan4 built the first temple for the monks residing in his country, and built the Ashoka Tower within the temple, which became the predecessor to the Jiang Nan Temple.
The ancient temple weathered many shifting changes, as well as rises and falls within the thousand years to come. During 1412 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Yongle5 of the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor (personal name Zhu Di) issued an imperial decree to rebuild the temple on a grand scale – bestowing it the name of Temple of Repaid Gratitude – as well as simultaneously rebuilding a nine level Lazurite Tower (also called the Porcelain Tower).
The Temple of Repaid Gratitude was hailed as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages” along with the Great Wall of China, the Roman Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, England’s Stonehenge, Egypt’s Alexandria’s Catacombs, and Turkey’s Hagia Sofia. The Porcelain Tower was even revered as the “First Tower Beneath the Heavens”.
In 1656, Dutchman Johan Nieuhof6 traveled with the diplomatic corps to call upon Emperor Shunzhi7 of the Qing Empire, and returned home to author Die Gesantschafft die Oost-Indischen Compagney in den Grossen Tartarischen Cham und nunmehr auch Sinischen Keyser, also known as “The Travels of Nieuhof”. Illustrations of the Temple of Repaid Gratitude are found within, and Nieuhof wrote: “The pagan monks opened the temple doors for us, and allowed us to visit a great hall with roughly ten thousand statues of Buddha. There was a porcelain tower constructed in the middle of the temple, built when the Tartars arrived around 700 hundred years ago. After the chaos of many wars, it still remains undamaged to this day. Its glorious past perfectly depicts the ancient proverb of immortality. One can gaze upon the entire city, and even its outskirts, when standing at the peak of the tower – all the way to the opposite banks of the Yangtze River. I would like to capture it with poetry and list this porcelain tower within the ranks of the Seven Wonders of the World. I, a Christian, was thusly subdued by the temple of a pagan.”
Along with the publication and widespread distribution of this book, the Temple of Repaid Gratitude became the piece of Chinese architecture that Europeans were most familiar with. The Porcelain Tower even became a symbol of China, of the Far East. Even though lazurite was a type of glazed ceramic and not porcelain.
There were nine levels to the Porcelain Tower, equivalent to twenty six stories. There were eight sides to the tower, and all were covered with lazurite tiles of five different colors, which were in turn embedded with more than ten thousand statues of Buddha covered in gold foil. It was sparkling, translucent, and flashed brightly. Wind chimes trailed below the peak of the tower, and beneath the cornices of every level. Whenever breezes from the south of the Yangtze River brushed past, the chimes would sound with pleasing, crisp sounds – as if a young girl was humming lowly.
When Emperor Yongle rebuilt the Temple of Repaid Gratitude, official history records that it was in gratitude of Empress Ma. The “Monument of the Imperial Construction of the Temple of Repaid Gratitude” has the posthumous title of Empress Ma (皇妣孝慈昭憲至仁文德承天順聖高皇后) on it, but many historians have expressed their skepticism. Unofficial history has it that Emperor Yongle built the Temple of Repaid Gratitude in memory of his birth mother Princess Gong. Debate has abounded with various considerations as to whether his mother was Empress Ma, or a non-Han Chinese concubine of his father’s.
After six hundred years had passed, the truth of history had long since perished along with the multiple flourishes and declines of the ancient capital Nanjing. No matter how many later generations weigh up the evidence, theorize, or speculate – no one will ever know the truth – apart from Zhu Di himself.
1854 A.D., the Temple of Repaid Gratitude was destroyed in the flames of battle from the Taiping war, and the Porcelain Tower could never be seen again.
December 17, 2015 A.D., the Memorial Park of the Temple of Repaid Gratitude, built on the original site of the Temple, was officially opened to the public. The park is large and magnificent, and the newly styled Tower towers majestically into the clouds. Whether slowly ambling along the quaint side streets of the ancient capital, or driving speedily along the brand new streets of the new city Nanjing, the Tower often appears in front of one’s eyes. It’s unconsciously become the symbolic architecture of the southern part of Nanjing. No matter from gazing upon it from afar, or from visiting it up close, the beauty of the Tower always causes one to marvel in endless wonder. Nostalgic feelings arise in that space between astonishment: What circumstances could’ve arisen to this miracle six hundred years ago? What story lay between Emperor Yongle and the Porcelain Tower?
Let us turn the pages and explore together.